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Cinematic VR: Some Work Needed

by Beth Divine 17 Aug 2018

It may come as a surprise to learn, given the huge and growing popularity of virtual reality, that there is one area in which the medium is falling behind – dangerously so, in today’s world when success needs to be almost immediate or else the next big thing will come along and push fledgling innovations off the road to success.

Cinematic virtual reality faces problems that gaming and documentary footage do not. With gaming, it is desirable that the player explores the whole virtual world, in order to pick up power ups and health packs. In documentary or informational footage, likewise, the viewer is free to explore the full range of the footage, exploring as far as the producer has filmed, and taking as much time as he or she wants to do so. However, with a movie the audience could lose out on important parts of the action if they are exploring scenery far from the actors. Often, films rely on close-ups or quite subtle clues, offered with careful filming to make them clear but not obvious.

Producers need to decide on how much control of their audience they are willing to lose – should they limit the area filmed to keep viewers contained in places from which they can see all the action? Or should they film wide and free, allowing audience members to explore freely and potentially miss out on bits of the film in the hope that they will backtrack to catch up with the important clues they’ve missed?

The solution is not all that clear cut, either: while it might seem logical to keep the audience ‘tethered’ to narrow locations making sure they see everything necessary to fully follow the story, this then negates the whole selling point of using virtual reality to unfold the tale. Thus we have the problem in a nutshell – use VR and lose viewer attention, or don’t and lose VR enthusiasts’ interest.

The truth is, any realistic cinematic VR is at least three years down the line, more if people are not working on it, and hard, right now… However, with popup VR gaming establishments, it is quite possible that in that time, people will be ready to enjoy VR cinema.

What is clear is that the person who does get it right will cash in on a major advance in cinema – which will become stories we live through rather than stories we passively watch. A moment’s thought will reveal how interesting this idea could be: imagine experiencing a climb up Everest? But how realistic should the film-makers make it? Everest can be a deadly climb, and an entertainment company doesn’t want to cause real deaths!

The Sundance Film Festival in January boasted a number of small, fully immersive featurettes – but there are issues with distribution, hardware, balance (as above) etc to be sorted before mass production is even considered. Remember those books that you could decide what happened next? Yeah, nor do many other people. Readers – and possibly movie viewers – want to be told what happens next, they want the cameraman to focus on the right villain at the right moment, and not have to work out the storyline as they go along. Which VR may well make them do…

We can only wait and see what the film makers decide to do next.